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Celebration of Service

Raising global awareness of breast cancer

IBM project manager uses her skills to manage her work, her health, and her volunteering

In December, 2000, Sema Erdem was a healthy, single mother and project manager for IBM. “Up to 45 years of age, I had no major health issues – other than early childhood diseases like chicken pox – and I never had the flu more than once a year.”

All that changed when she found a lump under her arm. Her physician told her not to worry, but that she should get an MRI in order to “stop being suspicious.” Although it took six months before Sema had the MRI, her suspicions were well-founded. The lymph node was cancerous, requiring a lumpectomy.

Sema flew to the MD Anderson Center in Houston, Texas, US for treatment. ‘In a series of meetings with the radiology, oncology and my breast surgeon, I was given all the treatment options in detail with the option of having a second opinion and I made the decision in the end that I would go back home for the chemotherapy and have a bilateral mastectomy afterwards.’’

Back home she started having chemotherapy and kept on working, with the exception of a few days off to rest and recover after each scheduled chemo. ‘’I had all the support possible from my colleagues including the Country General Manager who told me that this was my personal health project and he was expecting it to be managed as successful as the IBM projects that I had undertaken before’’ Sema says it was then that she started managing her health as a business case –with activities planned, risks assessed, containment actions and completion.

From lymphedema massage to breast cancer awareness message

Through the physical therapist who began treating Sema’s lymphedema which was the result of the mastectomy operation with lymph nodules dissection, she was introduced to Europa Donna (ED), the European Breast Cancer Coalition, which is an independent non-profit organiazation whose members are affiliated groups from countries throughout Europe. ED works to raise awareness of breast cancer and to mobilize the support of European women in pressing for improved breast cancer education, appropriate screening, optimal treatment and increased funding for research.

Only two weeks after contacting the organization, Sema was asked to dive in and begin volunteering. “I was asked to share my story in front of a group of ladies. I’m not the type of character who would share my personal story with people whom I’ve only just met,” says Sema. “But that was the start of sharing my experience, giving back to women in need both my personal and professional expertise. I became a patient advocate.”

And she was asked almost immediately to become a board member of Europa Donna Turkey. “I joined the local team and elected as the executive board member in the following year’s ED General Assembly to work at PAN- European Level. I think both my background as a professional in project management and as a survivor were the reasons that I was chosen. In the second year of my executive board member role I had the Europa Donna treasurer role as well.’’

For more than eight years, Sema has held breast cancer awareness and breast cancer patient advocacy seminars both at national and at international level in many countries, as well serving as part of a scientific committee for Europa Donna. “My project management skills are applicable in all of my life – personal and professional. I think after 28 years of IBM experiences, I can adopt myself to any and all environments. At IBM, we undertake so many complex projects that all the other projects that you meet seem highly simple to be managed by comparison.

Raising awareness across the cultural divide

However, working to raise awareness of breast cancer and as a patient advocate hasn’t been limited to just her engagement with Europa Donna. Sema also served in Jaipur, India as part of an IBM Corporate Service Corps team. She was assigned to the non-governmental organization (NGO), Vatsalya, which works to protect orphans and abandoned children, as well as empowering marginal and under-privelaged women.

“The foundation learned that I worked with Europa Donna and, because there were all these women and young girls – and I was there on March 8th, The International Women’s Day – we held a few sessions to talk about breast cancer awareness. I met with Hindi and Muslim women who preferred only women to be participating in my sessions. They felt they could speak more freely when it was only women!”

Sema will continue her work with Europa Donna, inspiring others and sharing her lessons learned. “When I look back I can see the whole picture and I would say that the diagnosis of breast cancer which seemed to be an obstacle turned out to be an opportunity in my life,” she says.

IBM is marking its centennial year with a worldwide celebration of volunteer service. Throughout 2011, IBM invites everyone to join our global community of employees, retirees, families and friends as we support the communities where we work, live and learn together.